Policies that would withhold information about terrorist plots involving commercial airlines will not be acceptable to more than 80 per cent of the people, but information about threats to airports or the financial system can be withheld from the perspective of the majority of the respondents, the survey Do citizens want the truth about terrorist threats regardless of the consequences?
The researchers were led by Prof V Kerry Smith of the WP Carey School of Business
at Arizona State University,
US. In December 2009, Smith and his colleagues, Carol Mansfield of RTI International and H Allen Klaiber of Penn State, surveyed about 2,000 Americans to find out their beliefs about government secrecy in connection with terrorism.
The researchers believe this was “the first national survey of people’s attitudes toward public deception in the name of security.” The sample included adults from an Internet panel run by Knowledge Networks. The respondents were based in 33 large metropolitan areas, including New York, Los Angeles, Chicago and Washington, DC.
The research was supported by the United States Department of Homeland Security through the Center for Risk and Economic Analysis of Terrorism Events (CREATE), and has been recently published by the National Bureau of Economic Research (NBER).
[The research paper can be found here
The researchers asked respondents about three scenarios, to which they gave very different responses about whether to release the information in each case:
1. Should the government release the true cause of an airplane crash due to a terrorist attack, even if that will have major economic effects on commercial airlines, give the terrorists notoriety and create an increased fear of flying?
Release – 83 percent/Withhold – 17 percent
2. Should the government announce the details of a major plot to destroy airports in Los Angeles and New York after the terrorists have been captured, even though it might give away the techniques law enforcement used and make it harder to uncover future plots?
Release – 23 percent/Withhold – 77 percent
3. Should the government announce the details of a major terrorist plot to disrupt Internet service at commercial banks and prevent the processing of credit and debit card sales across the United States for 48 hours, if the terrorists have been captured, even though it would give away the techniques used to identify the suspects and reveal specifics of the security network?
Release – 24 percent/Withhold 76 percent
Another survey with an identical questionnaire was carried out in April this year in four major cities. The results were the same. Overall, Americans want to know about threats to commercial airplanes, even if that might result in significant damage to the US economy. But people are willing to tolerate a high level of secrecy about some other terrorist threats.
The researchers also found demographic disparities in the findings. It appeared that women were more willing to support withholding information. Those with at least a college degree were not. Married households were more willing to allow limits on information disclosure. Otherwise, support for treating the disclosure of different types of terrorist related information differently was quite uniform.
This was consistent regardless of whether or not the survey respondents lived in metropolitan areas likely to be potential terrorist targets. Women and people living in married households were more willing, in general, to support withholding information. Those with a college degree were less willing to allow limits on information.
The researchers said, “Since 9/11, many high-ranking security officials believe secrecy is the best recipe for safety and that they are acting in Americans’ best interest. However, our research shows that people are only willing to have the government withhold certain types of information, regardless of the potential consequences for specific industries or future threats. As a result, the challenge for policy makers is to incorporate the preferences of the people facing the increased terrorist risk when the government makes these decisions.”